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Fernie’s sewerage treatment facilities failing to meet demand

Population growth is outstripping capacity at the city’s sewerage treatment plant, with an expensive fix on the horizon
Fernie’s sewerage treatment plant is not meeting capacity demands according to staff, with the community’s population outstripping expectations. (Image courtesy of Google Earth)

Fernie could be up the proverbial creek.

A growing population is outstripping capacity at the city’s decaying sewerage treatment facilities, throwing the city out of compliance with provincial regulations and exposing it to regulatory action.

In a presentation to the committee of the whole on Apr. 19, city staff delivered a primer on an upcoming request for a decision from the council on what to do about Fernie’s wastewater treatment capacity, with the potential of a complete re-build of the treatment plant on the table as a fix.

According to staff, the existing wastewater treatment plant to the south of Fernie is overflowing and open to the river due to a combination of overwhelmed staff, overwhelmed and decaying facilities, and surging population growth.

Currently, the city has a permit to release treated effluent into the river for between 45 and 90 days of the year. However, with the facility buckling under demand, it was open for more than 50 percent of 2019, nearly 70 percent of 2020, and nearly 80 percent of 2021.

At the present, it has been open to the river since October 1 2021, and it may not be possible to close it to the river again, according to staff.

Effluent released is treated up to provincial standards. It is not raw sewerage.

The situation has come about because of faster than anticipated population growth, a large ‘shadow population’ of residents not captured in official census data, decaying infrastructure hurt further by inadequacies in the system and overburdened municipal staff having more work piled on in dealing with the emerging problems.

“The gap between crew capacity and increasing maintenance demands is getting wider with the increasing population and aging infrastructure applying pressure in opposite directions,” according to the report.

READ MORE: Elements killing city infrastructure

The cost of remaining open to the river 365 days a year is $120,000 per year for chemicals to treat the effluent so that it can be released. There is also the potential of regulatory action from the province, which delivered a warning letter to the city about the issue at the end of 2020, requesting information on what the city was planning to do to fix it.

For now, staff will be requesting permission to hire additional workers to help manage the existing facility at an additional cost of $210,000, which would necessitate an immediate increase in utility rate fees for residents.

However, a bigger and more expensive fix may be needed.

According to another staff report on bringing the city into compliance, “achieving regulatory compliance requirements is no longer possible moving forward until a significant upgrade to the system.”

A similar problem encountered by the City of Kimberley has yielded a replacement cost of $95 million, with that item set to go to referendum in the upcoming municipal election this fall. Two thirds is expected to be covered by grants.

Acting director of operations, Mark Rowlands, said a re-build is the preferred option over inadequate temporary fixes.

“My gut feeling is you want to do this right – you don’t want to do a patchwork of things that are failing in the future. (Cost) is going to come in pretty significantly in the end. Possible rebuild I’d lean 60, 70 percent towards that.”

City council will make a decision on hiring additional wastewater operators to handle the system as is on Apr. 25, while the city is getting ready for further discussions on what to do long-term based on studies into the issue.

READ MORE: External review of City of Fernie says much to be done to improve organization
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